The Seven-Day Scholar: The Presidents

Exploring History One Week at a Time


By Dennis Gaffney

By Peter Gaffney

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“A bite of history a day, all year long . . .”Flawless storytelling, expert research, and intriguing, one-page essays make The Seven-Day Scholar: The Presidents perfect for history buffs. The Presidents addresses formative moments in the lives of the presidents, crucial political decisions, little-known facts, and insights into the intriguing individuals Americans have selected to lead our country. Each chapter includes seven related narrative entries-one for each day of the week. The book explores many fascinating facts and issues about the presidents, including: Did Washington really enjoy dancing? Why did President Jefferson avoid speaking in public? Why did Lincoln crack down on civil liberties? Why did Eisenhower fight against big defense budgets? How responsible was Reagan for the end of the Cold War? As well as covering each president, the book includes chapters on the Best and Worst Writers and Speakers; Most Controversial Elections; Scandals; Most Controversial Foreign Policy Decisions; The Peacemakers; First Ladies; The Best and Worst Presidents; and more. Entries also include follow-up resources where curious readers can learn more. Readers can sweep through the book from beginning to end, or use it as a reference book, periodically exploring topics and presidents in which they are interested.



To all those leaders
who have made their communities
better places


This series started with an idea. My brother, Peter, an executive at History, knows that people love history, but have little tolerance for textbooks, multi-volume tomes, or obscure academic books. In these hectic times, he was convinced what most people want to read is reliable history broken down into manageable bites. That led him to a history book idea: one organized like a calendar. Chapters would stretch out like weeks in the year, and each chapter would include seven related one-page entries, like the days in a week.

He even came up with a title: The Seven-Day Scholar. But my brother is neither a researcher nor a writer, and he had a full-time job. So he asked me, a writer and a history buff, if I wanted to pursue the book with him. I said no. It sounded like an encyclopedia, and I find them boring. Then I had my own “aha” moment: Why not write a book organized as Peter imagined, but full of historical stories?

We chose the Presidents as the subject of the second book in our series—the Civil War was the first—because they are fascinating both as individuals and as prisms through which to glimpse our country’s rich history. In pursuing good real-life stories, well-known or obscure, we learned so much. That George Washington loved to dance. That Abraham Lincoln had to come quite far in his thinking to turn the Civil War into a war to end slavery. That Teddy Roosevelt took up boxing as a boy to strengthen his sickly body and boxed some rounds in the White House while President. That Dwight Eisenhower fought hard to corral military spending during his entire presidency.

We’ve collected what we’ve discovered as stories, mini-essays, historical debates, documents, and images. For those who want to learn more—budding scholars always do—we’ve recommended relevant books. Read this volume over a year or devour it in a week. It’s your pace and your journey.


Dennis Gaffney


One of the old chestnuts about George Washington—a moral tale repeated in the McGuffey Reader over generations—depicts the young George cutting down one of his father’s cherry trees. The account comes from a Pastor Mason Weems, who added it to the fifth edition (1806) of his book, The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington. He said he heard it from Washington’s nurse, and that it was “too valuable to be lost, too true to be doubted.” Weems wrote that Washington was about six years old when he was given a hatchet and “was constantly going about chopping everything that came his way.” One morning, George’s father discovered one of his cherry trees gone.

Weems writes: “ ‘George,’ said his father, ‘do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?’ This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, ‘I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.’ ”

Weems wrote that the honest reply meant more to George’s father “than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold.” Weems said the stories he collected were important because “It is not, then in the glare of public, but in the shade of private life, that we are to look for the man. . . . [I]f he act greatly [in private], he must be great indeed.”

Weems apparently did not act greatly privately or publicly, as historians, who have found next to nothing about young Washington’s relationship to his father, have concluded his account was a fabrication. Weems apparently invented the morality tale for a higher private purpose: selling copies of his anecdotal biography. “I’ve something to whisper in your lug,” Weems wrote his publisher Matthew Carey a month after Washington’s death: “Washington, you know, is gone! Millions are gaping to read something about him. I am very nearly primed and cocked for ’em.”


Many Americans imagine George Washington as a wooden man, but he was actually someone who deeply enjoyed life’s pleasures. Many of his favorite pastimes were typical of a Virginia planter of his day. Washington bred hounds, for example, and wrote in his diary that during one forty-nine-day stretch in 1768 he spent between two and five hours a day conducting foxhunts. After a hunt, the men often drank wine, usually Madeira, which Washington bought by the pipe (110 gallons) or by the butt (150 gallons). Washington, who drank in moderation, once joked that his Mount Vernon home was a “well-resorted” tavern, serving as a popular destination for many friends and neighbors.

Washington also enjoyed gambling and bet on horse races at Alexandria, Annapolis, and Williamsburg, and also bet on billiards, card games, and dice games.

But the pastime that Washington cherished most was dancing. At age fifteen, he paid three shillings nine pence to attend a dancing school, and he took what he learned to the dance floor, whether stepping to country reels, jigs, or minuets, his favorite. During their Mount Vernon days, George and Martha often danced at parties that went long into the night.

During his presidency, he danced at numerous balls held in his honor, and he noted that one in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, was attended by “about seventy-five well-dressed and many of them very handsome ladies.” The ladies, too, found him an attractive partner. “The general danced every set,” wrote the governor of Maryland after a ball held at Annapolis to honor Washington after the war, “that all the ladies might have the pleasure of dancing with him, or . . . get a touch of him.”


Washington’s father died when he was eleven, the reason he was never sent to boarding school. Unlike many of the Virginia aristocracy, he didn’t attend college or ever visit Europe, and he admitted to a “consciousness of a defective education.” He later confessed that his poor education discouraged him from writing his memoirs.

“That Washington was not a scholar is certain,” John Adams later observed. “That he was too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station and reputation is equally past dispute.”

Washington scholar Peter R. Henriques asserts that a book on etiquette and manners, written in 1595, Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, “most influenced his conduct.” Washington copied rules from the book into a school notebook at about age sixteen. French Jesuits first wrote the 110 rules, some of which now seem amusing: “Spit not into the fire . . . especially if there be meat before it”; “Kill no vermin, or fleas, lice, ticks, etc. in the sight of others.” When with others, “Do not Puff up the Cheeks, Do not Loll out the tongue, rub the Hands, or beard, thrust out the lips, or bite them or keep the Lips too open or too Close.”

But some of the rules might have shaped the man Washington became. Rule #1 was: “Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present.” Rule #45 urges restraint, which Washington needed to corral what one contemporary called his “tumultuous passions.” Was this guide to the “virtues of humanity” Washington’s handbook for how to behave? At least one scholar is skeptical: “It is quite possible,” writes Joseph J. Ellis, “that he copied out the list as a mere exercise in penmanship.”


Washington was selected commander in chief by the Second Continental Congress in large part because he served as a colonel in the Virginia regiment during the French and Indian War. Washington had fired one of its first shots as a twenty-one-year-old leading a small force of men on the British side in Pennsylvania. He and his men bumped into French forces, and shooting broke out. “I heard the bullets whistle,” Washington wrote his younger brother, “and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound.”

But Washington earned his reputation the next year, in 1755, as a participant in a disastrous British defeat. Washington was serving as an aide to British General Edward Braddock with a force of about thirteen hundred troops on the march to Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh). Braddock and his army got caught in an open field by nine hundred of the Fort Duquesne men, two-thirds of them Indians. The British regulars, decimated, “broke & [ran] like sheep before Hounds,” Washington remembered. After Braddock was shot down, Washington rallied the remnants of the forces. Two horses were shot from under him and four musket balls put holes in his coat, but somehow he remained unscathed while “death was leveling my companions on every side of me.” The French and Indians counted twenty-three killed and sixteen wounded. The British and Americans suffered nine hundred casualties, nearly three in four men. Washington would forever remember the screams of the wounded being scalped. He gathered the survivors and retreated.

Braddock, dead, was blamed for the debacle. The public praised Washington as “the hero of the Monongahela.” One newspaper commented that Washington had earned “a high Reputation for Military Skill, Integrity, and Valor; tho’ Success has not always attended his Undertakings.” Washington learned little about strategy, a prerequisite for even adequate generals. Yet he’d displayed bravery, and another trait that would prove useful many years later, when he would lead the revolutionary army against the British: an instinct for survival.


George Washington’s marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis, widow of Daniel Custis, on January 6, 1759, is often portrayed as one of convenience. Washington, a colonel in the Virginia Regiment, needed a wife—better yet, the richest widow in Virginia—to make his Mount Vernon a home. Martha needed a manager of her estate and a father for her two children.

But clues suggest it was more than just a prudent pairing. Everyone spoke of Washington’s magnetism, and despite the dowdy old portraits we associate with Martha, whom Washington called Patsy, her contemporaries described her as attractive (both were twenty-seven when they married). The fact that they didn’t have any children of their own was likely because the “Father of the Country” was probably sterile, as Martha had had four children with Custis. Martha also had an attractive personality. Abigail Adams observed, “Mrs. Washington is one of those unassuming characters which create love and esteem.”

Throughout their life together, hundreds of relatives, friends, and officials came for visits to Mount Vernon and none ever reported a discontented marriage—although posterity would know more if Martha hadn’t destroyed their letters to each other upon George’s death. In the handful of letters that remain, George addresses Martha as “My Dearest.” Martha addresses George as “My dearest” and “My Love.” In a letter George wrote in 1775, sixteen years into his marriage, he informed Martha that he’d accepted command of the Continental Army, writing, “I should enjoy more real happiness and felicity in one month with you, at home, than I have the most distant prospect of reaping abroad, if my stay was to be Seven times Seven years. . . . My dear Patsy . . . I retain an unalterable affection for you, which neither time or distance can change.”


By all contemporary accounts, George Washington, six feet three inches tall, towered over most of his peers and was stronger and healthier as well. But the imposing leader had an Achilles heel—his mouth. From the age of twenty-one, when he lost his first tooth, until his death, the American leader was plagued by rotting teeth, ill-fitting dentures, and painful gums.

“His mouth is large and generally firmly closed, but which from time to time discloses some defective teeth,” said George Mercer, a friend. Washington’s copious records show he spent money nearly every year to extract teeth and purchase sponge toothbrushes. In 1788, his first year as president, his favorite dentist, John Greenwood, made a set of dentures with human teeth set into hippopotamus ivory, pinned in place to Washington’s one remaining tooth, a lonely lower left premolar. Crackles in the ivory (cattle, elephant tusk, and human teeth were used in other dentures) stained by port wine or other drinks might have mimicked wood grain, the source of the still-pervasive myth that Washington had wooden teeth.

The various sets of dentures, with their wires, rough edges, and tightly wound gold springs that pressed the contraptions against the gums, often pained the president. In 1790, Washington ordered laudanum, an opiate mixed in alcohol that might have soothed his sore gums.

Dentures also distorted the geography of his face, and Washington complained that one pair “bulge my lips out in such a manner as to make them appear considerably swelled.” You can see the lower thrust lip in the portrait done by Christian Gullager in 1789. In the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington, engraved on the one-dollar bill, the square-jawed president is also biting down on a full set of dentures. Historians wonder whether Washington’s bad teeth might have led to another change that contemporaries noticed as he aged—a reluctance to smile.

When George Washington was about sixteen, he copied these Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation into his school notebook. The question remains: Did Washington take these rules to heart, or were they just a lesson in penmanship?


In June 1775, at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, John Adams, worried about the fate of the colonies after fighting broke out with the British at Lexington and Concord, stood up and called upon “a gentleman from Virginia” to command the still-to-be-recruited Continental Army. Washington, seemingly embarrassed and surprised, fled the room. After discovering he’d been selected by the Congress, he directed his friend Edmund Pendleton to tell his peers he didn’t seek the post and was unqualified to fill it.

“I have used every endeavour in my power to avoid it,” he wrote Martha, “not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the Family, but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my Capacity. . . . But, as it has been a kind of destiny that has thrown me upon this Service, I shall hope that my undertaking of it, is designd to answer some good purpose.”

But Washington was perhaps not as ill-disposed to the post as he claimed he was. He was the only congressional attendee who wore a military uniform—hardly the outfit of a man looking to avoid command. On June 8, 1775, a week before he was appointed by Congress, Washington ordered five books on military tactics—which reveals an eagerness to lead and to learn, but perhaps an insecurity as well. Perhaps Washington was eager for responsibility, fame, and glory, but he also doubted his ability to lead a cause that appeared doomed.


Upon accepting the position of commander in chief from Congress, Washington told the gathered politicians that “I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.” He was probably right: He’d never commanded more than a regiment and had never led an artillery or a cavalry. He knew little about constructing defensive positions or sieges. Compared to the British generals, he was a babe on the battlefield.

Before Washington figured out how to win the war, he nearly lost it. In June 1776, as Jefferson was drafting the Declaration of Independence, Washington was maneuvering his troops to repel British forces then arriving in Long Island and New York City. Washington planned to beat the British, but the plan showed more bravado than sense. Washington had only fifteen thousand poorly trained men, many suffering from smallpox, compared to roughly thirty thousand well-trained British and Hessian soldiers. Unlike Boston, where he’d prevailed, New York City was a Loyalist stronghold, made even less hospitable by the surrounding harbors and rivers that allowed the British to use their thirty warships.

Washington made matters worse by dividing his forces between Manhattan and Long Island. He lost Long Island in a day, August 27, 1776, and his men there suffered three hundred casualties, with a thousand more taken prisoner. Washington and his men managed to slip away to Manhattan under the cover of fog and rain. His generals voted 10 to 3 to abandon Manhattan, but Washington overruled them. Historian Joseph Ellis described Washington’s stand on Manhattan this way: “It was as if a mouse, cornered by a bevy of cats, had declared itself a lion.”

His men took a stand at Fort Washington in northern Manhattan, and three thousand of them were killed or captured. Washington had lost nearly five thousand men, one of the worst defeats in American history. He was forced to abandon his assumption that Britain’s mercenary army could be defeated by sheer courage. Next he would try surprise.


To escape the British army after the defeat in New York City, the Continental army retreated across the Delaware River on December 7, 1776. A more aggressive British general might have crossed the river to finish the American forces, but General William Howe dawdled. Having little respect for Washington, General Howe went back to New York City to rendezvous with his mistress.

Rather than having his troops wait out the winter, as was customary, Washington planned a daring middle-of-the-night crossing of the Delaware on Christmas to surprise the Hessian mercenaries. Beforehand, he wrote himself a note: “Victory or death.”

Washington knew he was not an inspiring speaker, so instead of giving a speech to his men, he handed out copies of Tom Paine’s The American Crisis, which officers read aloud as they began the crossing: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. . . .” The famous painting by Emanuel Leutze has Washington standing alone at the prow of a boat, but actually the soldiers stood with their general.

Two of his units couldn’t make it across the icy Delaware, but Washington pressed ahead. When they met “a violent storm of snow and hail,” Washington shouted from his horse, “Press on, boys, press on,” knowing that they had to reach the Hessians before they awoke.

The Hessians hardly expected an attack in a snowstorm at dawn the day after Christmas. They fought hard, but were outgunned by the twenty-four artillery pieces that Henry Knox had transported across the river. Washington’s twenty-four hundred troops caused about one hundred casualties among the Hessians; nine hundred were captured and a few hundred more slipped away. Only two Americans were injured (one a future president: Lieutenant James Monroe). After the victory, one English journalist wrote, “A few days ago, they had given up the cause for lost. Their late successes have turned the scale and now they are all liberty-mad again.”


George Washington had won the Battle of Trenton using surprise, but to win the Revolutionary War he had to learn another, less valued military virtue—patience. It was his reduced forces after the disastrous defeat in New York City in August 1776 that began to teach him patience and endurance.

“We should on all occasions avoid a general action, and never [be] drawn into a necessity to put anything to the risk,” he wrote Congress in September 1776. “I am sensible a retreating army is incircled with difficulties . . . but when the fate of America may be at stake on the issue . . . we should protract the war. . . .” This strategy became more necessary as the defeated army limped across New Jersey, soldiers deserting until the rebel forces dwindled from nineteen thousand to about five thousand.

This defensive approach was sometimes called a Fabian strategy, after the Roman general Fabius Cunctator, who defeated the Carthaginians by retreating his army whenever it was threatened with destruction. By nature, Washington considered such retreats cowardly. But after New York he had to face the “melancholy truths” that “it is impossible . . . that any effectual opposition can be given to the British Army with the Troops we have.” He had learned what all guerilla leaders learn: Victory came not by winning battles, but by surviving until the invader became exhausted and lost its political support at home.

Washington’s Fabian strategy was tested in August 1777, when it became clear the British were going to attack Philadelphia. His instinct was to “take every measure in my power to defend it.” When the British took Philadelphia, Washington had to overcome his desire to recapture it, as his generals reminded him that it was strategically more important to protect his army.

“The lion,” biographer Joseph L. Ellis has written, “had to become the fox.” His restraint, Ellis writes, “completed his transformation into a public figure whose personal convictions must be suppressed and rendered subordinate to his higher calling as an agent of history, which . . . meant that winning the war was more important than being himself.”



On Sale
Feb 7, 2012
Page Count
288 pages
Hachette Books

Dennis Gaffney

About the Author

Dennis Gaffney is an adjunct professor at the University at Albany SUNY, and also a journalist who has written for The New York Times, Mother Jones, and Reader’s Digest. Peter Gaffney is Senior VP, Programming, Scheduling and Acquisitions for HISTORY.

Peter Gaffney is the Vice President of Program Planning &amp Acquisitions for HISTORY Channel and A&amp E.

Learn more about this author